My lifelong Quest

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Some things take a lifetime. More or less.

It took until a few days before my 75th birthday to become clear about my lifelong quest. Some would call it my “vocation” in life, my “calling” as we say. Others might call it an obsession. In either case, it’s taken this long to say a word about it.
In a nutshell, my life’s occupation has been, and still is — are you ready? — theological anthropology.
EliIMG_6311
“Whoah! What’s that?” my 11-week-old grandson Elijah is asking.
Theological anthropology, like all anthropology, is the search for understanding of the human species. The term  ‘anthropology’ is the combination of the Greek words  anthropos (human) and logos (word). Anthropo-logy is ‘the word’ about ‘humankind’.
Theological anthropology is the study of humankind in the context of ‘theos’, i.e. ‘G-d’ — which Paul Tillich translated as Being-Itself, the Ground of Being, that which is ultimately Real.
Anthropos is contingent; Being-Itself is not. Like all species, ours has a very short lifespan in the aeons of eternity. We are a small part of the All or the Whole (Friedrich Schleiermacher), creatures of time with the rest of moral nature who can be understood, if at all, only in light of this larger timeless Whole.
The Psalmist question –“What is man that Thou art mindful of him?” (Ps. 8:4 KJV) — is my life-long question.
Who are we as a species? Who am I as a member of it? Who are the Andrews, the Tituses, the Campbells, the Stewarts among the vast assortment of homo sapiens? Who am I in relation to Barclay, my Cavalier King Charles Spaniel friend, the forests, the flowers, the birds, and the rest of the species of dust and ashes holding our breath before the majesty of life itself?
Why theological anthropology?
You can take the human species out of the universe and the universe will go on as it did aeons before anthropos came along. We can’t say the opposite. Essential to the human experience is the terror of contingency and the wonder of of it all, what Rudolf Otto called “mysterium tremendous et fascinans”.
The idea of “man (the human species) over nature” is a deadly illusion, a flight from reality itself, an escape from the trembling that comes with our vulnerability, our transience, our mortality, the final limit of all human creativity (the “image of God”).
After only one cup of coffee on my 75th birthday, that’s the best I can do.
Mom

Muriel Titus Stewart

This afternoon I’ll be in the Philosophy Lounge at Macalester College in Saint Paul, MN at the invitation of a philosophy professor, a long way away from the delivery room and the loving, laboring mother who pushed me into the world (the philosopher’s lounge) back in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania. Thanks, Mom!
– Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, August 10, 2017.

More or Less Connected?

This morning we reply to The Daily Post’s invitation to create a post on the word “connection.”

Because Views from the Edge has been silent the last few days – my only connection has been an Obsessive Compulsive Disorder preoccupation with preparing a book proposal for submission to a publisher – and feeling no urgency to add more punditry dribble to the presidential campaign coverage, my immediate response was the antonym for connection: “separation.”

I’ve been totally connected to the book proposal; almost totally disconnected – separated, walled off – from Kay, Barclay, and the news. I’ve also been less physically present except for short breaks for meals and answering the bell Barclay rings when he needs to go outside to do his duty. I’ve been dutiful indoors with little connection to anything but the book proposal – more connected and more separate all at the same time.

Theologian Paul Tillich translated “sin” as “separation” from the Ground of Being, nature, neighbors, and one’s self. I’ve been living in sin! And, now that I’ve broken the silence in response to the Daily Post’s invitation, I’m going back to sin until the connection with the publisher is finally made – by means of the internet which has managed to produce a new paradox: wider connection and deeper separation than previously imagined.

Temporarily less connected until next Tuesday’s submission…unless Steve connects with a poem,

Gordon

 

Our Anxious Time

Ours is an anxious time, a fearful time, an insecure time. We feel it in our bellies.

This morning we’re moved to consider anxiety, fear, and insecurity. For that purpose we turn to philosophical theologian Paul Tillich* (scroll down) and philosopher of religion Willem Zuurdeeg** for whom the questions were passionate and all-consuming over their lifetimes. Even so, they were not the best of friends.

Zuurdeeg was a severe critic of Tillich’s attempts to create a theological system. He saw every system as a flight from finitude and ambiguity into what he called “Ordered World Homes” that make sense of, and defend against, the anxiety intrinsic to finitude. For Zuurdeeg, to be human is to be thrown into chaos and every philosophy from Plato to Hegel to Tillich is “born of a cry” – the cry for help, for sense, for protection, for a security that lies beyond one’s powers.

Reading Tillich’s Systematic Theology again after reading the news this morning leads to the conclusion that Zuurdeeg and Tillich were very close, as is often the case between critics of one another. One thinks, for example, of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung in a similar manner.

For all their differences, Zuurdeeg and Tillich were joined at the hip by their shared experience with madness in society and the demise of once-trusted foundations of western civilization. The rise of the German Third Reich led them to a lifelong search not only for answers but for the questions that might lead to insight into the existential situation into which Hitler’s madness threw the world headlong into chaos and destruction.

Anxiety, said Tillich, is distinct from fear. Fear has an object. We fear an enemy. We fear Iran; Iran fears us. Israel fears the Palestinians; The Palestinians fear the Israelis. “Objects are feared,” said Tillich.

A danger, a pain, an enemy, may be feared, but fear can be conquered by action. Anxiety cannot, for no finite being can conquer its finitude. Anxiety is always present, although often it is latent. Therefore, it can become manifest at any moment, even in situations where nothing is to be feared….. Anxiety is ontological; fear, psychological… Anxiety is the self-awareness of the finite self as finite. [Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology, Vol. 1,  p. 191-192, University of Chicago Press, 1951]

Anxiety is the self-awareness that we are mortal. We are excluded from an infinite future. We were born and we will die and we know it. Despite every flight into denial, we know it in our bones. We have no secure space and no secure time. “To be finite is to be insecure” (Tillich, p. 195). In the face of this insecurity, said Zuurdeeg, the individual and the human species itself seek “to establish their existence” in time and space, though we know we can not secure it. The threat we experience in 2015 is the threat of nothingness. Politicians pander to it. Preachers pander to it. Advertisers prey on it. They eat anxiety for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Again, Tillich, writing as if for our time:

The desire for security becomes dominant in special periods and in special social and psychological situations. Men create systems of security in order to protect their space. But they can only repress their anxiety; they cannot banish it, for this anxiety anticipates the final “spacelessness” which is implied in finitude. [Tillich, p. 195]

So this morning I sip my coffee aware of and thankful for this moment of finitude, and determined that I will not turn over my anxiety into the hands of those who promise security from every fear. Willem Zuurdeeg and Paul Tillich looked directly into the heart of human darkness and saw a light greater than the darkness. I want to live in the light of their courage and wisdom.

Paul Johannes Tillich (1886-1965)

Paul Johannes Tillich (1886-1965)

*Born and raised in Germany, Paul Johannes Tillich was the first professor to be dismissed from his teaching position in 1933 following the election of Adolf Hitler as Chancellor of Germany for his outspoken criticism of the Nazi movement. At the invitation of Reinhold Niebuhr, he and his family moved to New York where Tillich joined the faculty of Union Theological Seminary. He went on to become one of the best-known philosopher-theologians of the 20th century, publishing widely from teaching from chairs at Union, Harvard University, and the University of Chicago. His best know works are The Courage to Be, The Shaking of the Foundations (a collection of sermons),and his three-volume Systematic Theology.

Willem Frederik Zuurdeeg (1906-1963)

Willem Frederik Zuurdeeg (1906-1963)

**Born and raised in the Netherlands in a family that served as part of the underground resistance to Hitler’s pogrom, Willem Frederik Zuurdeeg spent his life asking how western civilization’s most sophisticated culture (Germany), could fall so easily into the hands of a madman. His Analytical Philosophy of Religion became a major text for undergraduate and graduate philosophy of religion classes. When Professor Zuurdeeg died of cancer as Professor of the Philosophy of Religion at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago, he left behind an unfinished manuscript later completed by his friend and colleague Esther Cornelius Swenson, the title of which is Man Before Chaos: Philosophy Is Born in a Cry. Click HERE for photographs of Willem Zuurdeeg and the family that gave Jews sanctuary in the Netherlands.

Good News and Hard News – Nature and Capitalism

Paul Tillich quote in Tillich Park, New Harmony, IN: "Man and nature belong together in their created glory - in their tragedy and in their salvation."

Paul Tillich quote in Tillich Park, New Harmony, IN: “Man and nature belong together in their created glory – in their tragedy and in their salvation.”

A spiritual reflection for the Second Sunday of Advent, December 7, 2014.

The beginning of the GOOD news is HARD news, according to John the Baptist, calling people out into the wilderness. “We must change,” he said.  “Repent” by which the Judeo-Christian tradition means a 180 degree turn. “About face!” Only by turning will we be delivered from the consequences of the actions that have led us here.

For John the Baptist and the writer of the Gospel of Mark’s opening paragraph (Mark 1:1-8) the system at issue was Roman imperialism, an economic system centered in Rome, expanding out, and enforced by, military invasions, subjugation, religious tolerance (so long as the religious practice did not interfere with Roman prerogatives) and occupation.

One could repeat the sentence in 2014 with little change: “the system at issue [is [American] imperialism, an economic system centered in [Washington] expanding out, and enforced by, military invasions, subjugation, religious tolerance (so long as the local religious practice [does] not interfere with [American] prerogatives) and occupation.”

It is our spiritual, moral, economic, cultural and political captivity to a global system that cannot satisfy our real needs or the world’s that produces a longing in our hearts, a readiness to make the lonely trip to the wilderness.

We’re a weary people in 2014. Wearied and still disheartened 11 years after the “Shock and Awe” that took down Saddam Hussein on the pretense that he had weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) that threatened us, the Administration’s manufactured association of Saddam Hussein as the cause of 9/11. We’re wearied of lies and misrepresentations. Weary from budget fights that barely reference 10 years of un-budgeted military expenses, the loss of thousands of American soldiers’ lives and as many as 100,000 Iraqi civilians, a military venture undertaken on the assumption that the Iraqi people would welcome our presence as the beginning of democracy and a “free market” economy that would lift them all up.

That belief in the goodness of American intentions hit the rocks as quickly as Saddam’s statue hit the pavement in Baghdad. All the while we were wearied by the earlier invasion of Afghanistan, whose original justification was a quick elimination Osama bin Ladin and Al-Qaida untempered by realistic knowledge of the long history of the military interventions that mired the invaders in quagmires such as the Soviet Union found itself before leaving in defeat. To the Afghans it didn’t matter whether the troops were Soviet or American. They were the same. They were the occupation forces of an imperial power destined to fail.

In the midst of the weariness about what was happening abroad, the financial system at home took the American economy to the brink of disaster in 2008. Occupy Wall Street rose to the top of the news cycles. Although the movement fizzled over time, as such movements inevitably do, it caught the attention of television viewers, internet surfers, and newspaper and magazine readers. Occupy Wall Street and the spot light it placed on “crony capitalism” became a hot topic around water coolers at work and the table in the coffee shops.

For the first time in recent memory, capitalism was no longer sacred, no longer off limits. Time’s front cover asked the question whether Capitalism was dead. But, as with Occupy, public attention is short-lived. Amnesia sets in when people are weary. How soon we forget…until some new John the Baptist issues the cry for a 180 degree turn for the sake of something better.

Maybe Naomi Klein is edition of John the Baptist. This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, reviewed by the New York Times – places the over-riding systemic issue squarely before the general public again. Senator Bernie Sanders, America’s only socialist Senator who names climate action as among his four top priorities, is gaining attention as a possible presidential candidate. Elizabeth Warren, the Senate’s bulldog on holding Wall Street accountable is creating a wave of populist momentum. Put them with Bill McKibbon and 350.org and you begin to hear the echo of John’s all to the hard truth that is the beginning of the good news.

The hard truth that precedes good news is the discovery of the myth that has coupled democracy with capitalism in the American psyche, while demonizing socialism as democracy’s opposite. Ideological blinders are to nations and peoples what blinders are to horses on a race track: they limit vision to the straight-ahead narrow limits of the track. Ideological blinders prevent the owners’ horses from thoughts of anything but the track on which they’ve been placed to race each other.

But when the climate is changing our track in ways that compel our attention, and when we ask how we will make it through the changes together, the bigger question of the economic system – the race track itself – comes into view by virtue of necessity. It calls us off the track into the wilderness of Nature.

The words ‘economy’ and ‘economics’ derive from the Greek words for ‘house’ and ‘the management of the household’.  Economics not about markets, free or otherwise, or about the technicians and pundits who monitor investments and predict quarterly outcomes. It is not an academic discipline, the exclusive province of experts on Wall Street or in university Economics departments who understand how the free market works.

Economics is a spiritual perspective like the one on Paul Tillich’s marker in Tillich Park in New Harmony, Indiana. “Man and nature,” he said, “belong together in their created glory – in their tragedy and in their salvation.” There is no humanity with nature; the human calling of our time is to reshape our lives for the wellbeing of the one house in which all life lives.

During this Advent season of longing expectation, John the Baptist with his axe aimed at the root of the tree reminds us that economics is the spiritual issue of the first order. The good news is what the Hebrew Bible calls “the Day of the Lord” and John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth called “The Kingdom [i.e. Society] of God”. The hard news is we’ve been running on the wrong track, or, you might say, barking up the wrong tree.

The planet – this home we call “nature”, without which no person, society or form of life exists – is an economy that requires different management. The economy for which our hearts long is the one house imagined by the psalmist and announced by John in the wilderness beyond the Pax Romana: the good news awaiting our longing hearts to embrace it, a planetary home where “righteousness and peace will kiss each other” (Psalm 85:10) and wars will be no more.

The beginning of the GOOD news is HARD news. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

– Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, December 7, 2014

Campaign Mind Control

Words are POWERFUL!  Timothy Egan’s “Deconstructing a Demagogue” in the NY Times reminds us of just how powerful they are:

Back in 1994, while plotting his takeover of the House, Gingrich circulated a memo on how to use words as a weapon. It was called “Language: A Key Mechanism of Control.” Republicans were advised to use certain words in describing opponents — sick, pathetic, lie, decay, failure, destroy. That was the year, of course, when Gingrich showed there was no floor to his descent into a dignity-free zone, equating Democratic Party values with the drowning of two young children by their mother, Susan Smith, in South Carolina.

Today, if you listen to the PAC ads flooding our television sets, you’ll hear the innuendoes and strategies  from the “Language: a Key Mechanism of Control” memo

And that’s just the beginning of the story of how language is used for social manipulation. Gingrich knew that language is “A Key Mechanism of Control.” Those who are well-schooled in theology and politics know that language is the primary mechanism of mind control: truth becomes falsehood and falsehood becomes truth; beauty becomes ugliness and ugliness becomes beauty; goodness becomes evil and evil becomes goodness, twisted by the language of innuendo and word association.

The cynicism that pervades the American electorate is due, in part, to this demagogic use of language. Words are precious things. Holy things. Sacred things. When they get twisted, they become vulgar and profane, one might even say ‘demonic’ in the sense in which Paul Tillich defined ‘demonic’: the twisting of the good. “The claim of something finite to infinity or to divine greatness is the characteristic of the demonic” (Paul Tillich, “Life and It’s Ambiguities,” Systematic Theology, Vol. 1, p. 102).

The campaign for control of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives is in full swing. So is demagoguery and the Gingrich memo on mind control.

Words are sacred. Abuse of them plunges the speaker and the hearer into the darkness of the demonic twistings that led James Russell Lowell to write the hymn lyrics I sang as a child:

Once to every man and nation Comes the moment to decide, In the strife of truth with falsehood…. Though the cause of evil prosper, Yet t’is truth alone is strong; Though her portion be the scaffold, And upon the throne be wrong, Yet that scaffold sways the future, And, behind the dim unknown, Standeth God within the shadows, Keeping watch above His own.

 

– James Russell Lowell, 1945, “Once to Every Man and Nation”

I hope. I hope…and pray we’re as smart as Paul Tillich.

The Right and Left Hand of God

The Rev. Dr. Paul Louis Lehmann

The Rev. Dr. Paul Louis Lehmann

Theologian-ethicist Paul Louis Lehmann (b.1906, d.1994) observed that the right hand of God is the left hand of the world. Paul Lehmann was a friend of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and one of the giants of his time who opposed McCarthyism and published books that influenced subsequent generations.

Pondering his statement over the years led to an alteration of Dr. Lehmann’s statement to the effect that it is as though God ties the right hand (the hand of power) behind God’s own back and invites us to do the same. The left hand, the non-dominant hand, the hand of weakness, you might say, is the way the world enters into its own salvation from its own tyranny.

The President’s Speech on the Economy

Aired earlier today on All Things Considered (MPR, KNOW, 91.1 FM).

Paul Tillich quote in Tillich Park, New Harmony, IN.

Paul Tillich quote in Tillich Park, New Harmony, IN.

Today President Obama began a series of speeches about the future of the American economy. I hope he takes us back to the basics of what an “economy” is.

Economics is about a household and how to manage it. The household is a family, a state, a nation, a planet.

The English word “economy” comes from the Greek work oikos – the Greek word for house. The word “economics” derives from the Greek word oikonomia–the management of a household.

Before it is anything else, economics is a perspective, a frame of reference. Before it decides anything about household management, it knows that there is only one house. Good household management – good economics – pays attention to the wellbeing of the entire house and all its residents.

In America and elsewhere across the world, we are coming to realize that the planet itself is one house. What happens in one room of the house – one family, one city, one nation – affects what happens everywhere in the house. Paul Tillich caught the clear sense of it when he wrote that “Man and nature belong together in their created glory – in their tragedy and in their salvation.” That is to say, there is only one house.

The essential question of economics is not about systems – capitalism, communism, socialism, or something else. The essential question is spiritual, philosophical, and ethical. It’s whether we believe that there is only one oikos, one house; the subsequent question is about how best to manage it for the wellbeing of all its residents and the fragile web of nature without which the house of the living would not exist.

Very often what we call ‘economics’ is not economics. It’s not oikonomia. It’s something else. It assumes something else, and when we forget what an economy and economics really are, we enshrine greed as the essential virtue, ignoring and imperiling everyone else and everthing in the one house in which we all live.

I dream that the President will preach the old Greek common sense: that in his own way, he will reclaim the essential premise of an economy and the ethical task of economics. By bringing the Greek origins to our television sets, headsets, and iPads, he can call us to move forward out of the partisan houses of nonsense.

There is only one house.

When help doesn’t come

“If you believe in GOD’s powers and you ask for help and he doesn’t help you right away, it means he believes in you!

It only takes 20 seconds of insane courage to do the impossible.”

– Ruth J., 9 yrs. old.

After worship at Shepherd of the Hill in Chaska, Ruth and Lily hand me their reflections on the sermon – either in words or in drawings and symbols printed on the backs of yellow visitor/prayer request cards. Their insights blow me away. I look at their cards and ask myself, “Why didn’t I think of that?”

Ruth is a young Paul Tillich:

“Faith is the courage to be. Courage can show us what being is, and being can show us what courage is.” – Terry Lectures delivered at Yale University, The Courage To Be, Yale University Press, 1952.

Reflections along the way of a terminal illness

Katie and Maggie sharing a moment of sadness. Maggie knew!

Katie and Maggie sharing a moment of sadness. Maggie knew!

Today, three years to the day after Katherine’s (“Katie’s”) death (May 9, 2010), we inter her cremains.

IT’S RAINING, IT’S POURING” was written the day we learned that Katie’s incurable Leiomyosarcoma had taken a turn for the worse. In memory of Katherine (“Katie”) Elizabeth Slaikeu Nolan.

Gordon C. Stewart Feb. 11, 2009

It’s raining, it’s pouring
The old man is snoring
He went to bed and he bumped his head
And couldn’t get up in the morning

It’s a day like that. I bumped my head on the illness of a 33 year-old loved one. It’s raining sadness. I’m having trouble getting out of bed in the morning.

Terminal illness has a way of doing that unless you believe in miracles of divine intervention or you have extraordinary powers of denial.

My spirituality has become increasingly like that of Rebbe Barukh of Medzobaz, an old Hasidic master in Elie Wiesel’s tale of Four Hasidic Masters and Their Struggle Against Melancholy. When he prayed the customary Jewish prayer, “Thank you, Master of the Universe, for your generous gifts – those we have received and those we are yet to receive” – he would startle others with his weeping. ‘Why are you weeping?” one of them asked. “I weep,” he said, “in thanksgiving for the gifts already received, and I weep now for the gifts I have yet to receive in case I should not be able to give thanks for them when they come.”

For my family at this critical time, the real miracle has already occurred – the shared gift of love – and it will come again in ways I cannot now anticipate when the last page of the final chapter of our loved one’s life is over.

The miracles are more natural, nearer to hand. Although I don’t believe in selective divine intervention, I am on occasion a sucker for denial – except on days like this when it’s raining and gray and I’ve bumped my head on the hard fact that cancer is ransacking my loved one’s body. A certain amount of denial, too, is a blessing in disguise, one of God’s generous gifts to keep us sane when the rain pours down and clouds are dark.

Faith comes hard sometimes. In college mine was challenged and refined by Ernest Becker‘s insistence that the denial of death lies at the root of so many of our problems. My faith has been refined along the way by the courage of Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre to face the meaninglessness of the plague, the faith and courage of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Paul Tillich who stuck their fingers in the gears of Nazism, and the humble witness of Mother Teresa working in the slums of Calcutta with more questions than answers and some anger at God.

The job of faith, as I see it, is to live as free as possible from illusion with a trust in the final goodness of Reality itself, despite all appearances to the contrary. Faith is the courage and trust to look nothingness in the eye without blinking or breaking our belief in the goodness of mortal life.

When I look into my loved one’s eyes I see that courageous kind of faith that defies the cancer to define her, and a resilient spirit that makes me weep tears of joy over the gifts we’ve already received and the ones we have yet to come.

It’s still raining and it’s still pouring, but I refuse to snore my way through this. I’ve bumped my head on the news of a loved one’s terminal illness, but I’m getting up in the morning.

POSTSCRIPT March 21, 2012

Conversation yesterday about “The List” posted on Bluebird Boulevard:

Karen:

My mother died of cancer eight years ago. Her loss is still visceral. She is in every bird I see.

Me:

The morning of Katherine’s memorial service Kay, Katherine’s mother, was standing by the large picture window gazing out at the pond in our back yard. Out of nowhere, it seemed, two Great Blue Herons flew directly toward the window and swooped upward just before they got to the house. “She’s here. That’s Katie,” said Kay without a second’s hesitation. On her last day of hospice care, Kay and I each remarked that her face looked like a baby bird. I’m a skeptic about such things. I’ve always been, and always will be, a doubting Thomas. My assumptions and conclusions come the hard way. But on the day the herons flew directly at Kay from across the pond, I saw it with my own eyes…and HAD to wonder.

Within a minute a third Great Blue Heron perched on the log by the edge of the pond and stood alone for a LONG time. It reminded me of a gathering on the steps of the State Capitol in Saint Paul following the tragic deaths of school children at Red Lake, MN. The crowd stopped listening to the speaker. They were looking up. “What’s going on?” I asked Richard, the Red Lake American Indian advocate and my co-worker at the Legal Rights Center.org. “Eagles,” he said. “Where?” “WAY up. They’re circling.”

I learned later that the eagles were also circling at that same moment over the grieving families gathered at Red Lake. I asked American Indian colleague what he took it to mean. “We don’t ask. That’s the white man’s question,” he said. “We just accept it. We live in the mystery.”

The First Duty of Love

Paul Johannes Tillich

This morning’s crossword quote is from theologian Paul Tillich:

“The first duty of love is to listen.”

To learn more about Paul Tillich click THIS LINK.

Most weeks I return to the works of Tillich. Paul Tillich has rescued many a faith, including my own, when doubt had been mis-perceived to be faith’s enemy.

“Doubt is not the enemy of faith; it is one element of faith.”

– Paul Tillich, The Dynamics of Faith

Tillich’s statement about faith and doubt go hand-in-glove with listening as the first duty of love. If you missed “Staying Together” on Views from the Edge’s, scroll down.  Steve’s poem puts these two Tillich quotes into practice of listening. Here’s a sip:

“Listen, learn, respect, rephrase, repeat

before you even start to speak.”